Smile Politely

The kids are alright: why we like WPGU

Cristy: When I arrived, wide-eyed, to Champaign-Urbana from boring Bloomington-Normal, I couldn’t believe my good luck when I stumbled upon WPGU. Escaping one huge radio conglomerate feeding me the bland, starchy diet of AOR, top 40, and adult contemporary, I’d stumbled upon a vibrant feast of rock and roll. In one day, I’d hear Gang of Four, Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, the Flaming Lips, Cold War Kids, Elsinore, the New York Dolls, George Harrison, Frankie Smith, Al Green, and the Decemberists.

William: WPGU is the radio station on which I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone,” The Modern Lovers (“I’m Straight”), and XTC (“Snowman”). That was a long time ago. There followed a time when the station wasn’t so good, and a time when I stopped listening to rock radio altogether. Then I met Cristy. When she drove, she listened to WPGU and swore it was a great station. There’s no accounting for taste, I thought. Until the night my jaw dropped: “Sugar on my Tongue” — a song I adored from that vital first slice of the Talking Heads’ arc (and not “Psycho Killer”!) recorded before the DJ was born, released as a somewhat obscure B-side. Since that moment, I’ve heard WPGU play great old music I thought I’d never hear on the radio unless I played it myself (Black Flag, Soft Boys), great old music I’d somehow never heard before (Stiff Little Fingers) and great old music that FM radio needs (Guided by Voices). Most important, I’ve received a dose of great new music (Vio-lens, Caribou, Matt and Kim, MIA, etc., etc.) without which I would have remained forever, in the words of Iggy Pop, “a teenage dinosaur, stoned and obsolete.”

C: On WPGU I discovered local bands old and new — like the Vertebrats, the Blackouts (now the Living Blue), and Ryan Groff. This has inspired me to explore more local music and appreciate what our community offers. The fact that we have at least four radio stations (WPGU, WEFT, WRFU, and WPCD) that make the effort to play local music is pretty amazing, in my opinion.

W: Yep. I can note at least two occasions in the past month when Cristy discovered with delight that a song on WPGU she was hooked on turned out to be from a local band (Curb Service, Living Blue). By integrating it into their playlists, WPGU rightfully elevates local music to the status of international music, letting the songs work their magic instead of treating them as though being local makes them somehow groove-challenged, in need of special support.

C: Believably enough, the DJs might stumble over words or mispronounce a name. It happens. It reminds me that there’s an actual human behind the microphone. It’s someone who’s part of our community, not some slick, syndicated DJ who pops into the studio, records his or her evening shift on a lunch break, then leaves.

W: This is an important point. By nature of its synchronousness and limited broadcast radius, radio is rightfully a community medium, and yet the FM dial is dominated by the voices of corporations like Clear Channel: manufactured robots, evil plastic people with supernaturally deep voices who never mispronounce words because they have nothing whatsoever to say — professional airheads like Nick Michaels of “The Deep End;” professional scumbags like Rush Limbaugh, Mancow, Howard Stern; smug, arrogant, humorless, heartless know-it-alls. So those excruciating intervals on WPGU or WEFT when the DJ goes on too long, like a toddler who is excited to have just mastered the basics of speech, going so far as to tell you they are having problems with the equipment and which track number they are trying to cue up, offering their unsolicited opinion on Robyn Hitchcock in the form of an unstructured, self-obsessed ad-hoc narration — those moments are the unpleasant symptoms of something beautiful and necessary, the stomach ache that comes with something sweet. Unprofessionalism is a sure sign of spontaneous, unpredictable radio in which artless format-driven programming has been ruptured to let the music breathe, to let silences expand, and let the airwaves return to the public domain. Radio where anything can happen.

C: Yeah, WPGU DJs might not know everything about rock. One morning on the “Odd Couple,” they were talking about “old” Genesis. My ears perked up: I love early 1970s, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. When one of the DJs inquired if “old” Genesis was the incarnation that released We Can’t Dance, I just about spit out coffee through my nose. We Can’t Dance was released in 1992! But then I thought about it. Of course he thought 1992 was old Genesis — the dude was probably born in the late 1980s. I got a laugh out of it, and appreciated the fact that, no, some of the DJs may not be as familiar with the classic stuff, but they know a heck of a lot more about new music than I do.

W: Damn. Well we’d be lying if we said that we wish everybody could be as smart about rock as us. We don’t. We like feeling smarter. And I do look for reasons to resent twenty-year-olds because, statistically speaking, they are better looking than me and will live longer. Regardless: good DJs should be music lovers first, encyclopedias second. After all, there’s more to an album than liner notes.

If I chose to treat the inconsistency found in WPGU’s programming as an affront rather than a blessing, I would say only this: “Oh no you did not just play ‘Power of Love’ by Huey Lewis and the News on the Flashback Cafe as an example of ‘the best in early alternative!'”

Other than that, I got no complaints.

Listen to Cristy and William mispronounce “Mark Blitzstein” on Rock Geek FM, broadcast locally at the godawful early hour of 8 to 9 a.m. Saturday mornings, on WEFT 90.1 FM.


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